Episode 3 – How to Use a Dungeon Master’s Screen (with guest Matt Wilson)

Roll For Topic
Roll For Topic
Episode 3 - How to Use a Dungeon Master's Screen (with guest Matt Wilson)

What makes a good DM screen, and what do they add to the game? Special guest gamemaster Matt Wilson joins Andy and Chris to talk about how they do (or don’t) use dungeon master’s screens.

Episode 3 appendix (AKA things that got mentioned):

Transcript provided by Barbara Tozier

Hosts: Chris Salzman and Andy Rau
Guest: Matt Wilson
Episode 3: How to Use a Dungeon Master’s Screen

[opening music]

Chris: Welcome to _Roll for Topic_, a podcast about GMs discussing issues at the table. My name is Chris Salzman…

Andy: …and I’m Andy Rau.

Chris: And we are joined this week by Matt Wilson.

Matt: Hi, how’s it going folks?

Chris: We wanted to bring a guest on just to get some other opinions and also just be able to talk to some of our friends about some things that they’re thinking about at the table as well. So, Matt, can you just give us a quick rundown of what games are you currently GMing? What’s your brief history with running games?

Matt: Gotcha. I’ve been running games for quite some time, since I was in middle school, which was, oh, 20-25 years ago now. I’m a one game at a time sort of person. Currently I am in — towards the later stages of — a long running _7th Sea_ second edition campaign that Chris actually is a player in.

Chris: Yes.

Matt: And I am prepping as we speak for the next game I’m going to run, which is going to be a remixed version of Pelgrane Press’s “Eternal Lies” for _Trail of Cthulhu_.

Andy: Oh, fantastic.

Chris: Very fun.

Matt: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve had it for a while, I backed it, talked to Simon about it. It sounds… it’s got a really great response from the community of Cthulhu GMs, and I’m looking forward to put my own spin on it.

Andy: Are you running that with the GUMSHOE system?

Matt: I’m actually going to use the GUMSHOE Quick Shock system. It’s not really a second edition because they’re going to keep them both around, but it’s a many-years-later refined version of the system that Robin Laws put together for the _King in Yellow_ role playing game which is coming out in a couple of months.

Andy: Oh, nice.

Chris: Interesting. Do you know what are the major changes with it?

Matt: From my perspective, and we talked about a little bit about this beforehand, but I’ve been looking to streamline the mechanical engine of the system. And as Chris well knows, I, at this point in my GM career, *hate* rolling dice.

Chris: Yes.

Matt: I’m just done with the whole thing of rolling dice, as a GM. I mean, I’m still going to roll if I want to generate something random. Randomization is fine, but the whole thing where I’m rolling a bunch of NPC things behind the screen and keeping track of all that. That’s just too much. It’s altogether too much for me.

Chris: It’s funny that you’re running _7th Sea_, a game in which your players have to roll more dice than I’ve ever seen.

Matt: I’m fine with the players rolling dice. You guys knock your socks out rolling dice. But it gets weird when I have to do multiple NPCs and roll dice for each of them and all that stuff. The Quick Shock system puts all of the dice rolling — it’s a player facing system much like _Numenera_ or the _Cypher System_ if you’re familiar with that — where the player’s roll not only dictates whether or not they succeed, but also the consequences of how much they fail by failure. And it also has a really interesting group resolution mechanic where the challenge of an encounter, say, is set up front, and the party as a whole needs a certain level of success.

Chris: Oh, interesting.

Matt: So the stronger players in that particular type of encounter can carry the weaker ones, but everyone still gets to narrate, like, how they’re bailed out by the machine-gun-toting murder hobo…

Andy: There’s always one of those.

Matt: …or the neurasthenic person mostly cowers behind the scenes. But yeah, it’s got a good mix of retaining the core GUMSHOE investigative mechanics with streamlining the dice rolling.

Chris: Yeah.

Matt: I’m looking forward to seeing how that works out.

Chris: Well, let’s dive into the main thing that we do here. Andy, why don’t you take over at this point?

Andy: So the way that we do this podcast is at the beginning of the show, we — or our guest — roll a D10 and we check on our table of random topics to discuss and that die roll determines what we’re going to talk about for the next 20-25 minutes. So Matt, if you have a D10, I’m going to need a straight up D10 roll from you, no modifiers.

Matt: All right, well as a _7th Sea_ GM, I have a profound amount of D10. I have selected my favorite crystalline purple and blue one here.

Andy: Excellent.

Matt: I have rolled a six. What manner of topic is a six?

Andy: Oh my friends. The topic you’ve just chosen is: “How do you use DM screens?”

Matt: Ah, the old DM screen topic? Nice.

Andy: Yes, indeed.

Chris: Yes, this is excellent. I think we all have many opinions about this.

Matt: Perfect.

Chris: Andy, you had actually indicated you were hoping that this one was going to get rolled, so why don’t you start us off?

Andy: Yes, I have a confession. And that is I… I have a GM screen problem. Marriage and having kids has somewhat dampened down this problem. But there was a period of time in my life where I was purchasing GM screens for every system I owned or even thought I might want to play at some point in the future. And just a week or two ago, I was cleaning out the basement trying to clear out some of my junk and there is, like, a two foot stack down there of GM screens going back to the mid- early-’80s. It was a little sobering to see all of those screens down there, I’ll be totally honest with you. I have a few GM screens around the house, you might say. How about you guys?

Chris: Ha ha! I need to know a lot more about your screens before we move on here. Are they all used? Or, is it just a stack of shrink-wrapped GM screens?

Andy: They’re mostly used. I’m not going to lie, there’s probably a few shrink-wrapped ones in the pile if I were to look closely. But no, I’ve used them, although I don’t necessarily use them for the system that they’re tied to. For instance, I have a lot of old White Wolf GM screens, and I don’t really run a lot of White Wolf games, I never have. As we get into the conversation, we can talk more about this, but my use of GM screens is not probably their intended use.

Matt: Intriguing. Intriguing.

Andy: Yes. So I’ll let your imaginations go wild with that. But, Matt, what about you? What’s your relationship to GM screens?

Matt: That’s a good question. Back when I was younger, the only GM screen I had was from the _HeroQuest_ board game. Are you familiar with the _HeroQuest_ board game? Who is the person that the GM was playing… Zoltan the Necromancer? Some beautiful ’80s, D&D-style villainous sorcerer leering out at people. I used to use that for our GURPS games. Andy, I’m exactly in the boat there with you. I didn’t need the _HeroQuest_ reference tables at that point in time.

Andy: Yes.

Matt: But yeah, so I used that. For most of my GURPS games, I didn’t use a GM screen at all, actually. When we played in college, we’d come into classrooms and I’d use the lectern and the chalkboard, which was dope and I really wish that I had one of those in my house still, although it does make you feel an academic of some type. Since then, I bought GM screens for a number of my games. So, I have GM screens for _Call of Cthulhu_, _Trail of Cthulhu_, old _7th Sea_, other stuff… but I found myself constantly frustrated with them. So I bought one of those plastic doodads, and I wish I remembered the name of the company…

Andy: Like a customizable GM screen?

Matt: Yeah, exactly. It’s got pockets on both the inside and the outside and that’s actually what I use now when I use a GM screen. For the _7th Sea_ game, I have _7th Sea_ appropriate swashbuckling art on the outside and custom inserts on the inside to remind myself of things that I find interesting, but one of the constant frustrations with them is that you don’t often… what you need for your game isn’t the same thing as what the general pool of people might need. So that’s definitely an 80/20 thing. And frequently, you’re hoping to have at your fingertips the 20% stuff that you don’t remember. What I’m looking for in a GM screen, is to prevent me from having to stop the flow of things at the table and dive back into this 300-page book for an obscure rule, or table, or “what does that dueling system let me do again? I’ve forgotten.” So making my own with inserts and pockets was quite helpful.

Chris: Do you end up actually writing out what appears on each of those screens? Or, do you find a pre-made resource?

Matt: A mixture of both, actually. The internet is amazing. It’s full of every kind of reference table or GM advice, from thousands and thousands of people who have done this before. So I pick and choose. For _Trail of Cthulhu_, I mostly just had it for the art, honestly, and to hide die rolls behind, or whatever. So I would actually rotate between _Call of Cthulhu_ and _Trail of Cthulhu_ ones. It didn’t matter what was on the inside there, it was mostly just to have the evocative art. But there’s a lot of things to remember with _7th Sea_. So for that, I have lists of encounters, I could have lists of names for a particular nationality where the players are, dueling styles — forever dueling styles — are there.

Chris: Yes! I noted, I think last session or two sessions ago you actually didn’t have your DM screen with you.

Matt: Yes.

Chris: So was that an intentional choice that you just didn’t…?

Matt: That’s correct. When we took a break in the _7th Sea_ game that I’m running right now — for October, to play spooky gothic horror games — I went without a GM screen for those, because again, the system that we were playing didn’t require me to hide any information from the players, all of the chancy things were in their hands. All the die rolls were in their hands, all of the decisions about what level they were going to engage with the gothic horror tropes was in *their* hands, not mine. So I had map printouts that I spread out on the table, but otherwise, I was just there to be the narrator.

Andy: So what would you guys say is the most useful GM screen that you’ve ever used? And I guess you could count your custom made ones. So tell us about the most useful one you guys have used and what made it so good?

Chris: I would say it’s just the customizations that are useful, at least for me. The _5e_ game I’m running… that’s pretty much the only official GM screen I think I own. And that most of it is just sort of useless until I added a full page of just random names on there. So then, when all my players are asking who that goblin was, I can quickly come up with a backstory with the name. Then they still proceed to kill or torture that goblin, but… I think when it’s printed by a company, exactly what you said, Matt, right there, they’re trying to give you enough for general information that it can be quasi-usable for everybody. But then it ends up just being not very usable for everybody, I think, unless it’s the first time you’re reading the information.

Andy: One of the most useful GM screens I’ve ever owned, did something that I don’t really see done these days and haven’t for quite a while. But eons ago, the old top _Top Secret/S.I._ role playing game had this GM screen — it was just your typical late-’80s flimsy cardboard screen, and I don’t even know if it had art, it just had terrible ’80s graphic design elements on it. But the thing that it did have, is it had player-facing information.

Chris: Oh.

Andy: So in that game, it was somewhat important that you know different modifiers and procedures related to combat, and it had all of those frequently used combat related modifiers on the outside of the screen that the players could see. I loved that! I guess you could accomplish the same thing by giving players a cheat sheet or something in advance, but it was just nice having a reminder of the oft-referenced rules on the outside of the screen for the players to see. When I read games like modern systems, any modern system that has a highly structured approach to its mechanics, like _Apocalypse World_ variants or _Fate_ or something, such that you often feel the need to make a cheat sheet for your players, I think that would be the ideal sort of thing to plaster on the front of a GM screen.

Chris: Was the text on that readable from a distance? How much information density was on the players’ side?

Andy: It wasn’t ton of information, and it’s been a while since I’ve looked at it, but it’s like a medium-size font. So, sharp 13-year-old teenager boy eyes could read it okay. These days, I probably would not find it all that usable. I mean, if you’re sitting across a big table, it wouldn’t work. But we were all huddled around in a basement, a creepy little circle of gaming, so it worked.

Matt: Art is great for suggesting an atmosphere. But frequently, especially in a system where there are frequently asked questions, it would be good to have that displayed in some way, because cheat sheets are definitely something that I’ve struggled with knowing what the right level of information density is. It’s obviously a similar problem here. That’s a great idea though, because that’s one thing you could do with a customizable GM screen is put reference information not just for you, but for the players on the other side. That’s something I should consider for sure. I included a map of the game world on the outside of the GM screen for the _7th Sea_ stuff, but again it does have that problem of it’s a map, so frequently the players on that side of the table will hunch over and squint at it a little bit, and I’ll be, like, “Right, right! I get it, the maps not big enough.”

Chris: Yes!

Matt: “Oops”

Andy: So why do you guys use GM screens, if you use GM screens? It’s okay to say that you don’t.

Chris: I use them because, at least in the D&D games that I’m running, they’re often going through a dungeon, so it’s helpful for me to have my notes on one side and then the visible map for them on the other. That said, a couple weeks ago I forgot my screen, so I had to improvise real quickly just with a folder and I realized that for the most part you could kind of get by without it. But it is a nice effect, too, I think, just to be sitting at the head of the table and you have this wall in front of you, where you are the Grand Master of the game. There’s something nice about the theatrics of that, I think, which sets the tone at the table, whether or not you hold the GM in high regard or not. If you have that separation between them and the player, it can help in some ways. But it was interesting, even a folder was enough to hide the information I needed to. It worked out fine and everybody still had fun. So it did make me start considering, “do I actually need this thing at my table?”

Andy: How about you, Matt?

Matt: I agree with Chris. They’re useful, for sure, if you have hidden information as a part of your game. The fear of the unknown, right? “We don’t know what’s in this dungeon,” for sure. Or, if you’re running any mystery or investigative game where you have your notes which spell out the mystery right in front of you, it is good to have a screen to conceal that sort of information. If you are playing in a system where you need to be making rolls yourself to determine what impacts your players are having on NPCs, or the NPCs are having on them, and you want to be able to cultivate an air of mystery and adventure around that, either for hardcore “you’re really going to try and let the dice fall where they may,” or if you’re fudging things for dramatic effect, it’s important to have that screen there regardless of which approach you personally take to NPC rolls.

Andy: Are you guys roll-in-the-open GMs, or do you like to keep some of your rolls behind the screen?

Chris: I do it 100% for dramatic effect. I will roll in the open if it’s something that they…. The most recent time I did it, they wanted to take a rest in a dangerous location in which they shouldn’t really have been, taking time to roll out their camping supplies. So for that I ended up just rolling on a random wandering monster table, on the table in front of the screen, and everybody hunched over and was watching that dice as it was bouncing around and landing. It was a really neat dramatic effect thing. But for the most part I just roll behind and tell them. Because, in D&D in particular, you can get really focused on what the number is on the die versus what the narrative effective is. The more you can remove — people just see numbers adding up and equaling things on a table — I think the better.

Matt: Yeah, I’m a 100% behind the screen roller. I go to some lengths to cultivate an air of trust between me and my players that they know that if I am cheating, it’s to make the story better. Nobody’s going to die in a random wandering monster encounter in my game. If they do die, it will be because they told me ahead of time they want their character to die. And it will be during a big dramatic scene in the stories. I view my role as I’m facilitating a story that will become better if the people telling the story don’t know where it’s going and what they’re up against at the outset. So I guess that puts me firmly in one of those “new age narrativist” role-playing game camps. Which is fine, but I’ve kind of always been there and I’ve always done the rolls in secret. I’ve always done this, even though my players for a very long time were convinced I was trying to kill them at every turn, frankly, because they died. Because in stories, characters die, sacrifices are made.

Andy: I’ve started moving away… as a lifelong roll-behind-the-screen person, I’ve been trying to at least moderate that tendency a little bit and start rolling a little more out in front of the players. You’ve brought up a number of the issues that can happen, especially in a game like D&D where you’re rolling everything out in front of the players. But what I found happening was if I rolled something, if I was rolling behind the screen for monsters, and they fumbled or something like that, I was finding the need to prove to the players that I had really rolled. It was such a dramatic roll, and it was so wonderfully in the favor of the characters that I found myself needing to prove to them by showing them the die roll. So I’d lift up my screen and show them. At some point, I was like, “if I am getting a kick out of that charge of seeing me roll a one for the ogre, I should just do that out in the open and we can all appreciate it without any suspicion that I’ve fudged that roll for the players.”

Chris: This is getting so off topic, but, whatever… Do you fudge rolls, Andy?

Andy: I do fudge rolls. It tends to be on damage-related rolls. I’m not completely loosey-goosey “only the story matters,” but I do tend to that direction. So I try to keep in an eye on character hit points and things like that. And if a goblin rolls some crazy amount of damage or stuff, I might rein that back in a little bit, to keep the narrative from getting derailed by something. I don’t know, I guess I do a small amount of fudging. How about you guys?

Matt: I do a fair amount but mostly in aggregate. What I was alluding to before we started to record, I’m weary of doing a lot of die rolls for…. If I’ve got, for dramatic purposes say there are 14 Goblins, right? I’m just not going to roll 14 dice, it’s too many dice. I’ll roll a couple of sets of dice, they’ll be broken up narratively, “the fighter’s taking on six of them, a cleric out there in the front lines is taking on more…” I’ll group and average rolls based on what I think the dice have told me about the general direction of that. That’s one reason why I have continued to look at systems where the GM just doesn’t do any rolling. Puts that roll in the hands of the players, that way it’s out in the open and those systems tend to give players tools to mitigate catastrophic failure on their own.

Andy: If you were playing a system like that, would you use a GM screen for its theatrical effect or for the art inspirational effect?

Matt: If there’s hidden information, I would certainly want one especially in the early going, I think, to have. I would like to have some representational or inspirational art out there. Whether or not it’s just on the table, as I did for the gothic horror stuff, or on the front of the GM screen, either way is fine. And if it’s any mystery game, then there definitely needs to be some hidden information, some concealed area for me to shuffle through the props or the story outline, even in a system where all the rolls are player facing.

Andy: So guys, I feel a need to pause here because one thing that’s interesting about GM screens, I think, is that they are a tool that has improved over the decades. I think it’s interesting, if you look back at the early GM screens were literally just card stock or paper. At some point in the ’80s or whenever that paper got thicker enough that it could stand up. I don’t know if you guys remember, a lot of those early GM screens that you’d have to prop them up with Mountain Dew cans or something to keep them from toppling over because they were just flimsy. Sometime around the turn of the century, some genius started this trend of GM screens with thicker cardboard, whatever the substance is, and these are wonderful! I feel that’s a piece of technology that improved over the years.

Matt: It’s still variable. It was probably four or five years ago now, when I picked up _Trail of Cthulhu_ and I got its GM screen. Again, for somebody who started role playing in the ’90s, that _Trail of Cthulhu_ GM screen was on 200 pound cardboard, very glossy, and beautiful art on one side, and it stood up on its own. But then sixth edition _Call of Cthulhu_ came out, and I got the GM kit for that and it came with the GM screen of its own and it was on board game boards. Tri-fold, textured, linen texture on one side and I was like, “Holy smokes! I thought the other one was deluxe, but now *this* is really the deluxe thing.”

Andy: It’s hard to go back once you’ve experienced that really deluxe GM screen!

Matt: Totally!

Chris: Have either of you been tempted by a very fancy wooden GM screen? Have you seen those, like the bespoke Etsy ones?

Matt: I have not seen a fancy wooden one, though I’m not surprised they exist. I’ve been certainly sorely tempted by the extremely fancy wood dice towers, and dice rolling pads, and all of that. The hobby has definitely gone upscale.

Chris: Yes! Yeah I’ve looked at some of those. I’m a hack woodworker at best, but I’ve thought about making a GM screen for myself. And then I pause, I’m like, “do I really want that in my life?” It kind of says you’re very particular kind of GM at that point, I think, if you have a screen.

Matt: Sure.

Andy: Chris, you can be honest. Let’s not lie, Chris, you do need that in your life.

Chris: I do. Yes.

Andy: That’s the sort of person you are, okay?

Matt: You need to get the woodcarving and the little scroll saw out, so you, too, can have a dragon head rearing up from either end.

Chris: Yeah.

Matt: I did make myself a dice-rolling box.

Chris: Oh, yeah?

Matt: I got crafty. It’s less useful than you’d want it to be at the table…

Andy: Are you familiar with a parody game called _HackMaster_? Came out around the turn of the century. It’s produced by Kenzer and Company, or I think that’s the name of the company. But I mentioned it because a) it was a parody game based on _AD&D_ first edition. And so they did a parody GM screen that had all of these extra foldout charts. It’s pretty hilarious. You should Google it just to see what it is. But I mentioned it because they’re the only company I’m aware of that ever made a *player* screen. So they also made a screen that you as a player could buy to put in front of your character sheet, I guess.

Chris: Nice!

Andy: I don’t really think there’s a huge market demand for that, but it was pretty funny.

Matt: Nice! I’ve heard of _HackMaster_. I’ve never actually seen it played or actually held it in my hands, but I’ve seen it at conventions and stuff.

Chris: I’ve played some board games that have little screens for each player. That’s kind of fun. But I wouldn’t… I just looked up _HackMaster_. This looks adorable.

Matt: Isn’t the cover some parody of the classic D&D image of thieves going up a statue or something?

Andy: Yeah, exactly. Maybe we can wrap up in a few minutes here. Matt, you custom make your own GM screen so this might be an easy question for you, but what’s your ideal GM screen look like?

Matt: For me, what I want ready to hand is that 20% like we were talking about. Most GM screens are tailored to get the most common information about the system in front of the GM and that’s good when you’re just starting. But frequently, once you’ve internalized the basic rules of the system, what you need are the edge cases or the things you’re never going to remember, because it’s a lookup table. If I were doing D&D and I wanted to have wandering monsters I’d want that wandering monster table there.

Andy: Yeah.

Matt: Or, case in point, in the _7th Sea_ system what I want is a concise summary of the duelist styles so I remember what they do. Or, when my players have traveled to a particular realm, I want to have names of people who might be there and reminders for what sort of things are going on there in that realm. So what I’m really looking for in a GM screen is to cover the things that I need ready to hand that I’m not going to have just internalized from experience playing the system.

Chris: That’s tough, because as soon as you start note taking enough to write it down sometimes then you’ve internalized it.

Matt: Sure, but it’s got to be stuff that you might be, two hours into a game… not necessarily remember everything you’ve written down.

Andy: How about you, Chris?

Chris: Sometimes I think I wish I just had four iPads duct taped together.

Andy: For the low, low, price of 1500 dollars you could do that, Chris.

Chris: Yeah. What were you going to say, Matt?

Matt: I was going to say that’s actually really good. I think an adjacent question: Do any of you — we can come back to it — do any of you guys GM with a laptop?

Chris: I don’t because I would get way too distracted. I tend to just rule at the table on stuff. So, if I don’t know what the ruling is, I’ll just make it up and my players are comfortable with that. So, to me, if I had the laptop I would just be distracted trying to look up too many things. So, not for me.

Andy: I’m kind of in the same boat. There’s been times over the years where I’ve had a laptop or players have had laptops. I find if I have the option to stop the game and search for the grappling rules and waste a lot of time, I will. So sometimes it’s best to just not give me that option and force me to come up with a rule on the fly, I guess. I can certainly see, I can absolutely see scenarios where having an iPad handy would be really useful. But so far, I haven’t seen that in my games. How about you, Matt?

Matt: Yeah, I tried the laptop thing for a while. But like you say it was…. And, searching PDFs is a little laborious even still.

Chris: It’s not good.

Matt: It’s just not optimized for that. Paging around in them was not great. I rapidly realized they were just too much of a hassle to look things up in, in real time. And then, I don’t know, there’s something about taking notes by hand at the table that feels really nice…

Andy: Yeah, definitely.

Matt: …versus typing away or whatever. There’s also the temptation where you might have too many things. I’ve definitely played in a game where the game world was incredibly elaborate, a labor of love. It was all on the GM’s laptop and everything was there. Again, it was kind of a lookup problem where, he knew the answer to that question because he answered it for himself 10 years ago and had to go find it.

Chris: I’m just going to say real quick… I ran a one-shot of _Kids on Bikes_, which was really fun. At one point, when we were doing character creation, we needed to pull up… I only had one book, but six people needed it. So I pulled it up on the iPad, and then sent it to someone so they could have on their iPhone and stuff. It was the hardest thing in the world to use just the PDF on the iPad for searching through stuff. Because even in a game like _Kids on Bikes_, which I mean, I think the rules are less than 100 pages, and the character creation part is maybe 10 of those pages, you’re just flipping back and forth so much and you can’t quite do that with a PDF or an iPad right now. So there’s something, like you said, with paper. I do all my note taking just on note cards and sometimes then I’ll go write those up on a laptop later. But for the most part, just note cards, and then those get trashed if I don’t need them, or they just sit in the stack, and then I can reference them really quickly at the table.

Matt: In college, I took notes on a laptop for one of my campaigns, and I had the most labor-intensive write-ups I’ve ever done. Not that I’ve ever seen, but that I’ve ever done. It was, like, two-page reports after every session to my players, which is the luxury of being in college.

Andy: That’s for sure.

Matt: Very, very detailed. On the PDF front, it’s weird because I’ve played in a game also where the GM was blind. Great GM, he had his iPad or laptop and was somehow vastly better at finding information in a PDF as a blind person than I was as a sighted person. So it is great, they’re available in that form.

Andy: I was going to say, on thinking of interesting things that you see on GM screens, one thing I would like in my ideal GM screen is adventure contextually relevant information that’s about the thing that I’m running. So if I’m running D&D, I want a map of the dungeon in front of me, not in a folder or something that I have to flip pages to get back to the map on. In early first edition _Dungeons & Dragons_ modules, often the cover was detachable, and you could use it as a GM screen. It would have a map of the dungeon that that module was centered around right there. That GM screen was really only relevant to the one adventure, but you would use it with that adventure. You don’t see that so much anymore, but I have noticed that there are more third-party GM screens out that are keyed to specific, for instance, _Dungeons & Dragons_ publications, at least. A couple weeks ago, I was running the first part of that _Waterdeep: Dragon Heist_, and I went out and I bought… there’s a GM screen for just that adventure. It’s got information on it that is only relevant if you’re running _Waterdeep: Dragon Heist_, but it was kind of neat. It had some art that was super specific to the adventure on the front, and on the back it had random tables and stuff that were specifically keyed to work with _Dragon Heist_ and not some other adventure. So on one hand, it was $15 that I can only use for this one adventure, but it was kind of neat. It reminded me of those old GM screens that were specifically focused on an adventure.

Matt: Yeah, that’s tremendous, that’s a good point. We’re lucky enough to live in an era where these things exist, for one. I do love those old modules, especially any module that’s good enough to have stood the test of time has a ton of either third-party supplements like GM screens available for it, or comes with one now. I’m a huge _Ravenloft_ fan. I have, like, every version of _Ravenloft_ they’ve ever published.

Andy: That’s fantastic.

Matt: That first one with the cover that just comes right off, have the map on the back. It’s really great.

Andy: I remember that one because it had a 3D isometric map of the castle, right?

Matt: Yeah, I think it was the first isometric map that anyone had ever seen in that context.

Andy: That’s also something you don’t see every day.

Matt: No. That is also one of the cool things about having this quad-fold plastic one with the pocket is that that company, will, of course, host fan-created stuff, so any good or big enough module tends to have some fan who’s assembled their own inserts for it, uploaded them. Definitely customized a few of those for my own current campaign.

Chris: Well this conversation is making me want to go modify my screen more than I have already, so it’s very fruitful. Let’s go ahead and wrap it up.

Matt: Sounds good.

Chris: Matt, I did not let you know this ahead of time, but one thing we wanted to do with guests is allow you to replace the topic that we just talked about with one of your own choosing. So, if you have anything that you’re thinking about right now — and I’ll stall for you for a minute, too, so you can think — you can do it right now, otherwise you can send it to us later and we’ll throw it in there with your name and if ever comes up in the roll, we’ll credit you.

Matt: Okay. Let’s see…

Andy: There’s no pressure, but if you don’t come up with one you have to sing us a song.

Chris: Yeah. Oh geez.

Matt: Oh boy. Let me polish up the old pipes here…

Andy: The song has to be “Separate Ways” by Journey.

Chris: Ha ha! Specific request.

Matt: That’s a *very* specific request. I don’t know that song so I think I’m going to come up with a topic instead.

Andy: All right.

Matt: So one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot with tabletop games is atmosphere. What tips, tactics, strategies, dirty tricks do people have for suggesting, cultivating, and maintaining a particular atmosphere? Because the default mode — and you can edit this question to something much more reasonable, I’m about to get discursive — the default mode at a table is adventurous comedy, right? It would be a PG-13 cut-down adventure movie with a lot of heavy comedic elements, and that’s great. But, from time to time, you want to do something… you want to step out to do a gothic horror thing, or you’re playing a _Call of Cthulhu_ game. It’s great to have the comic relief, but you also want to decide on what the background level of atmosphere is. “Is this actually a game about cosmic terror? Is this pulp adventure? What mode are we playing in, and how do we bring all of the players along with us?”

Andy: That’s a fantastic topic. I run a lot of _Call of Cthulhu_ and within 45 minutes it is always “Laurel and Hardy versus Cthulhu,” basically, around the table. I’ve come to accept it and even love it, but sometimes I do wonder what would it be like?

Matt: “What would it be like?” Indeed. Like I said, it’s great, and there’s always going to be that adventure-comedy-slapstick element to it… I feel I’ve done a decent job communicating “swashbuckling adventure,” but as I contemplate going back into a _Trail of Cthulhu_ game, what I want from it is something I didn’t manage to get out of the “Masks” campaign, which was a particular tone.

Chris: Mm hmm.

Andy: All right. Let’s add it to the chart. That’s fantastic.

Chris: We’ll add it, and you’ll just have to come back on and keep rolling and see if you can get it.

Matt: Generate it myself.

Chris: Yeah, all right.

Matt: I’ll crash and roll it for somebody else. I fudged the roll, you rolled a seven. Talk about seven.

Andy: Oh we haven’t even talked about the possibility of fudging the role here, you guys. You know, the format of audio kind of provides a aural GM screen… so you’ll have to trust us that we’re not fudging this roll.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. Always trust your GM, they have your best interests in mind.

Matt: Usually.

Chris: Okay, well, this has been _Roll for Topic_. Matt, thank you so much for joining us. This was super great! If we keep doing this, I hope you can come back on again sometime.

Matt: Sure thing. It’s been great to talk to you. I like talking about tabletop games.

Chris: All right, thank you so much. Thanks for listening.

[closing music]